As co-director of Rock The Ridge it’s a great thrill for me to see the participants moving through the mountains and especially the expressions on their faces when they reach the finish. Even more remarkable is their good work raising funds for the Mohonk Preserve (New York’s largest not-for-profit nature preserve and host for the event), the Michael J. Fox Foundation, the NY-NJ Trail Conference, and other causes. With close to $250,000 raised in 2017 alone, the event is now approaching a cumulative five-year total of one million dollars, an outcome which brings a mix of joy and astonishment to the organizers.
As co-director it is also my job to run in the event, so that organizers have a clear understanding of the participant experience. In past years, this has been great fun, for example, in 2015 when I won the master’s division and set a personal record. But as one gets a little older, fifty miles gets a little tougher, and in 2016 my time was quite a bit slower.
As I stepped up to the starting line this year, the only goal was to finish. This would be my first ultramarathon since Rock The Ridge the year before, thanks to a long series of injuries. Two weeks before the race, I was feeling good, but then with one week to go the posterior tibialis tendon (which runs underneath the ankle on the inner side of the foot) flared up once again.
But even if my strategy was to take it easy, there might still be ways to make this an interesting and challenging event. I could run the fifty miles without taking any calories, and I’d see how far I could get without drinking.
John Burroughs once wrote that to be an observer is to “find what you are not looking for.” With this thought in mind, I set off for a trail run in Minnewaska State Park Preserve a couple of weekends ago, with no particular goal but to cover some ground and open my eyes. Perhaps I’d observe something that I wouldn’t have even thought of looking for.
I picked up a beech leaf and examined it: the leaf was pale yellow in the center and dark brown around the edges. I knew that soon these leaves would carpet the forest floor in layers of beige, but for now, the forest was sparkling in the late October sunlight, and the beech trees glowed like gold.
The scene brought to mind Henry David Thoreau’s 1860 essay “Autumnal Tints,” in which he wrote, “There is just as much beauty visible to us in the landscape as we are prepared to appreciate.” He meant that by diligent study of nature we learn to appreciate its beauty. He summed up the essay by encouraging readers to pay attention to nature:
When you come to observe faithfully the changes of each humblest plant, you find that each has, sooner or later, its peculiar autumnal tint; and if you undertake to make a complete list of the bright tints, it will be nearly as long as a catalogue of the plants in your vicinity.
— Henry David Thoreau, “Autumnal Tints”
And so, this fall, I tried to do as Thoreau suggested, that is, as I hiked, ran, and drove through the eye-shocking autumnal displays in upstate New York’s Shawangunk and Catskill mountains, I tried to “observe faithfully.” Here is my list of the brightest tints….
As race director for the SRT Run/Hike, I’m interested in encouraging participation in the event and seeing more people experience the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), which is one of my favorite trails in New York. To be fair, the full 70-mile division isn’t for everyone: not only does it require significant endurance to cover such a long distance, but also you’ve got to be mindful about navigation, nutrition, and hydration, since we don’t provide aid stations or course markings. This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But the half-marathon division should be accessible to a lot of people, and with a start-time of 10:30 AM and the final cut-off at midnight, you have 13.5 hours to complete the course, which requires moving at barely a 1 MPH average pace. To demonstrate just how generous this time limit is, I chose a beautiful fall day recently to see if I could complete the 1/2 marathon course within the time limit, without food, water,* or even shoes.
As a novice barefooter, I knew the going would be slow, but I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day than experiencing the sights, sounds, and textures of New York’s most magical trail.
It was around 6pm on Friday, September 16th when a bunch of SRT 70-Mile participants hopped off a yellow school bus to meet the remaining SRT 70-Mile participants at High Point State Park in New Jersey. Like a school bus of children on their first day of school, we were excited and nervous (and most of us had to pee). After a quick race briefing from the Race Directors, we were off to the starting line at the SRT’s southern terminus. We snapped a starting line photo and the RDs let us loose on our journey to Rosendale, a 72 mile trek along the Shawangunk Ridge Trail.
The shuttle bus from Rosendale (where the race finishes) bumped across a narrow bridge to a small parking lot, illuminated by a single light. The 8 of us (that was it!) trotted out into the misty darkness. The race director gave us waterproof maps and our race numbers and a few navigational tips before the 6 AM start.
So, it’s the summer of 2015 and my running buddy, Malin Barton, says to me “Check out this race Joey, I think it would be fun”. I now know when Marlin Barton say’s “This will be fun”, what she really means is “This will probably kill us”.